To the average American, Germany may appear inconceivably enlightened when it comes to recycling. Consumers fastidiously sort and reuse packages for a variety of household goods, like shampoo, laundry detergent, and milk, that bear the green-dot logo, a swirling arrow identifying products licensed by the Duales System Deutschland, the country’s leading package recycler. That’s because in 1991 the nation enacted a packaging ordinance, requiring all industries to take back used containers.
Despite their admirably progressive legislation, Diana Jess, a finalist in our 2005 Next Generation Competition, asserts that the Germans are no more partial to sorting their waste than we are. She is out to debunk the myth that American consumers are apathetic about the environment, which is the reason most manufacturers give for not offering refillable packages.
After living in Germany for four years, Jess wanted to export the company’s bottle program to the United States. “It disturbs me that American packaging is so wasteful and supermarkets are so ugly,” she says. Not only does the German system compel nearly everyone to sort their refuse and recycle their used bottles, it also encourages manufacturers to design products that are less of a hassle for consumers. Companies that enroll in the Duales System Deutschland pay a licensing fee based on the weight and material of their goods, so minimal packaging is in everyone’s best interest.
While studying environmental design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Jess analyzed the buying habits of teenagers. “It is unbelievable how trend-based they are,” she says. “Some of them would buy expensive shampoos just because they were in fancy bottles. But I found that if you gave them the opportunity to get to know what they were buying, they did make better decisions.” With these considerations in mind, she is proposing to open a suburban-scaled supermarket called R3 (Rethink the Way You Shop) that builds on the American catchphrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” A package-recycling center shaped like an oversize stack of newspapers adjoins a grocery store fashioned after a two-liter bottle. Connecting the two is a boutique stocked with a colorful array of branded but empty reusable bottles. In the main grocery section, digital filling stations equipped with informational LCD touch screens invite consumers to inquire about their purchases.
Germany’s progressive environmental legislation may be responsible for the nation’s good behavior. A survey by Duales System Deutschland revealed that 91 percent of the population sorts their household waste—but of those, according to Jess’s research, 44 percent admitted to not caring about environmental issues. Her project recognizes that without such laws in place in the United States, financial incentives and provocative branding will need to coerce consumers to do the right thing—and these are two factors that bode well for turning us into a nation of accidental environmentalists.